The Work of a Coal Miner in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era

The pictures and images in this presentation are from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Look at the pictures carefully, and study the accompanying text, in order to learn about the work of coal miners, and how the work changed over the course of time.  The quoted text is from Andrew Roy, The Practical Miner's Companion; or, Papers on Geology and Mining in the Ohio Coal Field (Columbus: Westbote Printing Company, 1885): 108-110.

The manner of digging the coal is artful and curious. The tools of the miner consist of a sledge eight to ten pounds in weight, several steel wedges six to eight inches long, three to six picks from two and a half to three pounds in weight, with handles twenty-eight to thirty-two inches in length, a set of drilling tools, to wit: A drill, a scraper, a needle, and a tamping bar; frequently the drill and tamping bar are made of one piece, one end being used for a drill and the other for a tamper.Two miners work together in rooms and entries; they keep each other company, assist in setting props, one watches while the other works in dangerous situations, and if one is caught the other can raise the alarm and call in adjoining comrades to the rescue.

The first and the most laborious part of the work of coal digging consists in undermining, or bearing in, or holing the rooms. This is generally performed in the bottom of the coal seam with the pick. An undermining is made of varying depth-sometimes three to four feet, frequently five to six feet; the miner stands upon his feet and strikes with all his strength, until a few inches in depth is cut; he then sits down on the floor of the mine, his legs stretched wide apart in front of his body, and cuts in six inches to a foot deeper; finally, he stretches his body along the floor, his shoulder and arm to the elbow resting upon his thigh, and in this constrained position finishes up the undermining. It will take two active miners four or five hours to undermine a room eight yards wide and four to five feet in depth. Forty to fifty blows of the pick are delivered per minute, and considerable skill is exercised in holing. Miners raised to the work from boyhood are both speedier and cleaner workmen than those who assume the calling after manhood. There is a good deal of difference also in the nature of the undermining, some beds cutting easy, others hard. A room is not usually undercut across its whole breadth in preparing a blast, though it is better to so undercut it.
Having finished the undermining, the next thing in order is boring a hole for the blast. Some skill is also required in performing this work, so as to give the powder the best possible advantage. In some mines more reliance is placed upon the drill than upon the pick, the coal being largely blasted out of the solid. In doing so the miner shatters the coal, but this gives him little concern, so long as it adds ease to his body. Coal is not mined now with the care and skill of ten or twelve years ago. The amount of powder required for a shot varies from one to eight pounds, the former amount sufficing when the coal is properly undermined-the latter amount being required in blasting out of the solid. As a general rule, a pound of powder is burned for every three tons of coal mined. In the Massillon [Ohio] region, where the main weapon of the miner is the drill, a pound of powder is burned for every single ton mined. In some mines powder is not required, the coal being knocked down, after it is undermined, with wedge and sledge.

Learn about the Hazards of Coal Mining
View a description of the coal miner's work written in 1902